Cornell Through the Generations

I don’t know what possessed me to accompany my dad to his 1971 Cornell reunion in early June, the first weekend after I had returned to the United States from studying abroad for a semester in Harbin, China. It was a change of pace, to say the least—a somewhat jarring transition from speaking Chinese to speaking English (though I’m a native speaker, my English was pretty bad in those initial days back in the States, as I struggled to become re-accustomed to using it), from hanging out with students from all over the United States and Canada who were also interested in China to rediscovering my family, and from traveling and living in unfamiliar environments that every day taught me something new to the old, more-than-familiar setting of the Cornell University campus on a warm summer weekend.

My father was apparently one of the few people whose children had opted to go along with him to keep him company during the reunion. As a result, my sister and I were pretty much the youngest people around. It was funny seeing every part of campus, from the Arts Quad to the West Campus houses to the dining halls, buzzing with people of my parents’ generation and older, as though someone with a strange sense of humor had decided to wind the clocks forward on a typical day at Cornell. Rumor had it that there were some people at the reunion who had graduated from the hill before either of my parents were even born, though it was hard to spot them because rumor also told that they took buses to all of their events (at one point when we were running late to an event at Bailey Hall, my dad insisted that we flag down a bus near Statler that also seemed to be heading to the concert. That was when I finally met this wizened generation, their snowy white heads resting against their seats as they gazed out at Cornell’s campus—how unfamiliar it must have looked to their probing eyes!).

Many of the people I met, friends and acquaintances of my father’s from college as well as people to whom he was introduced for the first time that weekend, held high-level positions in companies, had invented many products, had published all manner of novels and textbooks, had served as leaders in some capacity or other, and had traveled the world. This was the concrete proof that, just as my father had, I was attending university along with the future leaders of my generation, and it led me to wonder what many of my classmates would end up doing, and how many of the ones that inevitably became famous I would be able to point to and say something ridiculous like, “I remember sitting next to her in Wines class!”

The most significant realization occurred, however, as I was sitting with my father and sister in a dining room at the Statler eating a formal lunch with the class of ‘71. A current history professor, whose name I unfortunately forget but whose classes I greatly regret not taking while at Cornell (though come on, seriously—how many of us have time to take every single class that interests us?), gave a speech about the similarities, and then the differences, between members of my father’s generation and those of my own. Some of these similarities and differences I could have expected. For instance, our generation was, at the time of the reunion, much more apathetic politically than our parents’, who immortalized themselves in American documentaries and textbooks with their anti-Vietnam war protests, rallies, and marches—though since the reunion, our own generation’s apathy has started to crumble with the advent of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Other comparisons surprised me–we are overall much more accepting of people of different races, creeds, sexual orientations, and so on than our parents were, which seems ironic, given the “make love, not war” attitude that has come to form the stereotypical representation of their generation in our society.

While these similarities and differences in of themselves were illuminating, the reactions of my father’s generation were even more revealing. Some of the statements the professor made caused the audience to shout and whoop for joy, some caused them to boo, and some—revealingly—led to a half-hearted mixture of both sentiments, such as the surprising revelation that my generation is actually more religious, overall, than theirs. At that moment in time, hearing the dining hall filled with such charged responses to the professor’s speech and looking around at the glimmer in every set of eyes, all fastened attentively on the podium where he stood, I felt for the first time like I was part of something bigger. In some regards, my generation was taking up where my father’s generation had left off, while in others, my generation had chosen to leave some of the passions that generation held dear behind. But though the causes may differ, these alumni were as passionate about their beliefs and their desire to see positive changes in the world as our generation is today. We might sometimes think of our parents as stodgy curmudgeons, but the changes they made to the society they cared about formed the exact foundation upon which we now build our own protests and actions. In this way, generations continue to perpetuate the flame of social progress, never resigning themselves to an unjust status quo. Tied into this fervor with which we pursue our passions is our experience at Cornell, where I am certain many of our generation have learned some of the most important intellectual and emotional lessons of our lives thus far. The fervor with which members of my father’s generation still held Cornell closely to their hearts, after so many years, seemed to indicate that it had held an extremely important place in their lives as well, and continues to do so.

Future generations at Cornell will continue to change. They will differ from us in remarkable ways, but no matter how distant we become from them in age and no matter how little we seem to have in common with them, we all are connected in our passion for pursuing our causes that attracted us to the hills of Cornell in the first place. I can only hope that someday, at my Cornell ’12 reunion, my eyes will be as tearful with the memories and strong presence of Cornell in my heart as those of my father’s generation were at that remarkable luncheon.